The Steep Path to a Nuclear Future

That’s the title of my latest piece for The National Interest. The first three paras are below.

In the wake of the meltdown last year at the Fukushima nuclear plant, the viability of nuclear power has been called into question yet again. The Japanese government has closed down all but one of the country’s nuclear plants (though there are plans to start reopening them), and Germany has abandoned a previous decision to keep existing nuclear plants operating. Concern about nuclear power has also increased in the United States, with most opinion polls now showing a majority opposed to further expansion of the industry.

On the other hand, some commentators have been struck by the fact that the disaster did not cause any direct loss of life and that estimates of the adverse health effects of the radioactive releases are very modest. A striking example is English writer George Monbiot. An opponent of nuclear power before Fukushima, Monbiot has switched to the view that nuclear power should be supported as a response to climate change.

Unfortunately, this debate has taken place without much attention to the economics of electricity production. The critical question is whether nuclear power can be a cost-effective alternative as compared to renewables, investments in energy efficiency or even such long shots as carbon capture and storage. A look at the economic cost of the Fukushima meltdown suggests that the path to a nuclear future is steeply uphill.

I’m too busy to referee another fight over nuclear power today, so I’m delaying opening comments here until tomorrow. The TNI post is open to comments there, so that will give everyone a chance to get started straight away.

114 thoughts on “The Steep Path to a Nuclear Future

  1. 6. South Australia had high electricity prices before it had any wind power and the introduction of wind power has decreased electricity prices.

  2. @John Quiggin

    Granted, we would all be better off, to the tune of a few per cent of income, if we could burn coal without worrying about CO2, or if nuclear energy was an affordable alternative. But since these things aren’t true, we will have to pay a bit more for energy. End of story.

    And here was where I came in. Energy, like water, clean air, housing etc is an essential. We pay what it costs and work around that. Ensuring that the energy we get doesn’t foul our own nest, metaphorically speaking, is also essential. If we have to cut back some place else discretionary, then so be it.

    When people from official politics discuss the budget, they don’t say — oh golly gosh, we’ll all be ‘rooned if supporting parents have to go out to work when their youngest reaches 8 years. They just go ahead and do it. I’m, not supportive ogf that measure, but the principle is well accepted that when resource scarcity causes you to have competing claims, you prioritise.

    I’m for prioritising clean energy over all non-essential (i.e. non-life critical) demands for service.

    NB: Not persuaded that nuclear energy is all that relatively expensive, but the broad point stands all the same.

  3. @Hermit
    Hermit, it seems as though though you aren’t reading what others write. There’s not much point in arguing any further if you act as though we haven’t addressed all this.

  4. Ronald Brak :
    5. In Adelaide in summer the sun is still shining at 7pm.

    I was still generating 100 watts or so at 8 pm this January! Remarkable!

    However, it’s a 1.6 kw system, so we’re talking about 8% here, on a sunny clear day at the peak of the season.

  5. A follow up, with a bit more info: and

    Korean government data is reported to put the overnight cost of APR-1400 at the end of 2009 as $2300/kW, compared with $2900/kW for EPR and $3580/kW for the GE Hitachi ABWR. The same data puts the generation cost for Areva’s APR at US$ 3.03 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared with an estimated 3.93 cents/kWh for EPR, and 6.86 cents/kWh for ABWR.

  6. Hi Wilful! A typical fixed panel certainly won’t generate much electricity at 8pm, but now that the cost of PV has fallen so low I’m sure we’ll see more panels facing west or north-west to keep up production during the late afternoon.

  7. In the face of what ought to have been nuclear’s greatest opportunity – the emerging understanding of the link between climate and emissions – nuclear has fizzled. The reasons are political but I think they are more related to the weakness of support than the strength of opposition.

    Criticism of the green left for failing to turn to nuclear is almost entirely a rhetorical plank of a wider anti-environmentalist platform that includes opposition to forcing action on emissions; it doesn’t represent any genuine commitment to nuclear or to using nuclear to reduce emissions. ie weak support. Ultimately nuclear doesn’t get the strength of support from the powerful commercial and economic interests who aren’t put off by weapons proliferation, waste disposal and safety concerns because fossil fuels are cheaper. These interests are throwing their weight behind opposition to policies like carbon pricing that will make those cheap fuels more expensive.

    If the political Right had acted like the climate problem was a serious threat to global prosperity and security it would have given genuine political support to nuclear before Fukashima. Mainstream acceptance of the need to act would have helped overcome the alleged strength of opposition to nuclear – something I think was already evident in the views in comments as well as posts on this blog. Anti-nuclear sentiment, in Australia at least, and has gained the middle ground because nuclear has never had strong defenders – not the electricity generation sector and not any mainstream political party.

    Without acceptance of the seriousness of the problem the alleged political support the Right give to nuclear over renewables is as BS as their position on climate and emissions is. They are pro fossil fuels and, ironically, their unwillingness to back nuclear has given renewables the opportunity to move from hyper expensive to a genuine potential replacement for fossil fuels. Probably only allowed that opportunity because, truth be told, the fossil fuel sector expected renewables to fail so dismally they would be a total failure. They considered their only serious rival to be nuclear and seriously underestimated how far and how fast renewables could develop.

    Without strong acceptance of the seriousness of the climate problem nuclear will not have strong political backing. Strong emissions policy – ie strong carbon pricing – is the only route to bring about mainstream acceptance of nuclear, but pro-nuclear who want it in order to deal with emissions have found themselves in an alliance with anti-environmentalist climate science deniers. A losing situation for nuclear.

  8. Ken, I think I agree with all of that. ‘If so-called greens care about the environment so much, why are they anti-nuclear?’…well for one, because they do care about the environment and aren’t blind to the damage, and risk of much greater damage, we’d be creating…

    But then there’s the economics (greens not just being dopey one track tree-huggers and all). It’s one thing for governments to subsidise renewables to the tune of a few billion a year, and expect that the private sector will take care of the rest. It’s another to advocate for governments spending the cost of an NBN every 3 years for the next 30 years. We don’t have anywhere near the cheap labour of an India or China, and I can’t see that we’ll ever be importing workers for peanuts just to build nuclear reactors. People might want to consider what it costs in this country just to lay a few more miles of largely inanimate railroad track. We also lack the ability to forge our own reactor casings, and we don’t own *any* relevant tech or intellectual property. We’d be importing and licensing the lot (it would realistically be 10-15 years before that situation could change)…

    I’d have to imagine reactor building in Australia would be at least $7,500 / kW…add another say $3,000 / kW for distribution upgrades… another how many billion to completely restructure and rebuild our university system to educate for all facets of the industry including regulation (we can’t import those skills if every other country were expanding their nuclear programs too…bottlenecks within bottlenecks)…another how many billion to insure and indemnify…another 50-100% for inevitable cost overruns…waste disposal and decommissioning etc.

    It could only ever happen if it were nationalised – and it must be difficult for free-market small-government endorsing conservatives to swallow their principles and advocate whole-heartedly (and not just rhetorically) for creating an entirely new public-owned Australian industry which would dwarf the likes of a Telstra or NBN co by several hundred billion dollars.

    Interesting though to be spending a few days in Qld atm, and speaking with some people from the other side of the political fence…they had no real problem with the NBN, and accept that it’s necessary infrastructure…they just can’t believe we’re planning to flog off something so valuable as soon as we build it…

  9. A lot can happen in the next few years. PM Abbott will not be anti-nuke but not anti-coal either. Even if he is able to repeal carbon tax (via DD or outright) major generators will be reluctant to build new coal plant in case Abbott goes quickly. At the same time they fear export parity gas prices. I think this is what Alan Kohler calls a ‘capital strike’ against new baseload investment. Other factors could include a return to dry conditions with desals working flat out. Later this year Combet will oversee a review of the RET but the lobbying to retain it will be ferocious.

    Overseas developments (Germany, Japan, France) could have a major bearing on Australian public perceptions. I’m tipping a lot will change by say 2015 or earlier. Assuming enough vocal Australians want nuclear the quickest path would be to import prefabricated reactors, perhaps installing them at sites of retired coal stations. India claims to be able to build pressurised water reactors at under $2/w (presumably non prefab) but I think US approved designs are more likely.

  10. Hermit, do you think that a reactor that can compete in Australia’s electricity markets can deployed in three years? I ask because the nuclear industry hasn’t been able to make one that could compete in high electricity cost South Australia since the start of nuclear power generation almost 60 years ago. So do you think that the nuclear industry could build nuclear power plants that would be competitive in Australia, but chose not to, or do you think that they just weren’t really trying in the past and now they’ll suddenly get their act together and produce a competitve reactor in the next three years?

    Then there is the issue of safety. Even if the nuclear industry produced a new low cost reactor design tomorrow and swore that it was completely safe, would you believe them? And even if for some inexplicable reason you did believe them, how many reactor years of incident free operation would be required before the insurance industry would believe they were safe and offer reasonable rates? My bet is, a lot.

  11. I was just looking at Australia’s per capita electricity consumption. It climbed upwards pretty steadily until 2001, slowed, and has been more or less flat since 2005. Not bad considering that Australia mangaged to avoid punching itself in the economic gonads during that period. I read some stuff about improvements in lighting and water heating, but I think basically we got enough. Our rooms are bright enough, we’re cool enough in summer and warm enough in winter, our TVs are big enough, and cattle prod night down at fight club is shocking enough. If we want, from here on in, improvements in efficiency can reduce our electricity use while still leaving us enough.

  12. @Ronald Brak
    SA is in a bind over future electricity. The plants that use Leigh Ck coal are to be semi-retired. The State’s biggest project, the Olympic Dam expansion, needs another 650 MW of power and the gas price is set to skyrocket. Nuclear power could help enormously. SA lost its nuclear virginity with the Maralinga A-bomb tests and now Olympic Dam is the world’s biggest uranium deposit, ironically held back due to lack of power and water.

    As for risk not covered by private insurance I point out the precedent of Federal indemnity for Gorgon and CO2 buried under Barrow Island.

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